Hubris

The Blind Pig Who Found a Truffle: Chance

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“That was the first time I laid eyes on my future bride, but something was already astir. As J. D. Salinger had written in ‘A Girl I Knew,’ ‘She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except . . . holding the universe together.’ Though the woman in my hands was black, white, and flat, my imagination supplied the color and depth.”—Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Dr. Skip Eisiminger

The beauty with the bee-stung lips (in her turquoise bikini).
The beauty with the bee-stung lips (in her turquoise bikini).

I “Fortuna’s Ratchet: Speed Negotiable
At Fortuna’s throat God has slipped a knot,
but it’s her wheel and she may turn or not.”
—The Wordspinner

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Hubris)—June & July 2024—Editor’s Note: So, so much of Skip (Dr. Sterling) Eisiminger’s writing reflects his love for Ingrid, his wife of six decades, whom he met, and met again, not entirely by chance (which makes me, suddenly, recall that Rodgers & Hammerstein line: “I know how it feels to have wings on your heels/And to fly down a street in a trance./You fly down a street on a chance that you’ll meet,/And you meet not really by chance.” In this excerpt from a book he’s been “writing” since he met Ingrid, in 1961, in Germany, Skip relates how he met, by happenstance, or by “intelligent design,” the love of his life.

In 1961, shortly after I arrived at Heidwinkel/Bahrdorf, my “permanent” duty station in West Germany, I wandered into the company day room where Stan Sanders was showing anyone who was interested in them photographs he’d taken at a recent wedding reception. I knew that our company clerk had married a local woman, and the two were enjoying their honeymoon in the south of France, but I didn’t know either of them very well. Having nothing better to do and thinking I might pick up a few pointers in the dating game, I took a seat and asked, “Who is this, Stan, seated beside Lt. Pfister?”

“She works in a bank in Helmstedt, up the hill from the Florida Bar.”

“She’s a knockout. Are they serious?”

“I don’t know.”

That was the first time I laid eyes on my future bride, but something was already astir. As J. D. Salinger had written in “A Girl I Knew,” “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except . . . holding the universe together.” Though the woman in my hands was black, white, and flat, my imagination supplied the color and depth.

Our second “meeting” occurred a few weeks later at the municipal swimming pool. Ingrid was strolling around the pool’s perimeter with a girlfriend soaking up the spring sunshine. I didn’t know her name yet, but I knew she was the same beauty with the bee-stung upper lip I’d seen in Stan’s photograph. I took this chance sighting as a good omen because Lt. Pfister was nowhere to be seen; thus, the pump in this bird dog was primed.

A few weeks later, I totaled a jeep while serving on temporary duty in Gartow, about an hour north of Heidwinkel/Bahrdorf. A “deuce-and-a-half ambulance” had taken me to a hospital to set my broken hand bones before I’d had a chance to settle my debt at the hotel where several of us GIs had been living. When I returned to the base, Captain Crafton, who was not at all happy, ordered me to the main post office in Helmstedt to obtain a money order. Following a mid-shift, I took the duty bus to town, but the application for the order was phrased in formal German and written in the Fraktur script I could not read. The postal clerk suggested I walk up to the bank. “Dort ist ein hubsches Fräulein. She speak good English,” he said, and pointed the way. As soon as I walked into the bank’s lobby, sleepy-eyed as I was, I knew the Fräulein the clerk had been referring to, for she was the same young woman I’d seen seated demurely beside Lt. Pfister and strolling around the pool in her fetching turquoise bikini.

Fortunately, the bank was almost empty that morning so, after filling out the money-order form, I asked where she’d learned such fluent English. She said that many Germans her age started learning English and French in the fifth grade. She said she was practicing her Italian in preparation for a month-long vacation in Italy with her girlfriend Christa, who also worked in the bank. In fact, she and Christa were going to Italy the following day, and she had a lot of packing to do. 

As she was exchanging some of my dollars for marks, she asked how I’d broken my hand, and while she didn’t ask, I’m sure she noticed the name “Brigitte” written large on my cast. Had she asked, I would have assured her that Brigitte was not an obstacle to our future happiness. I said I hoped I’d see her again, but I was headed to France the following week to meet my father in Paris. I left the bank thinking our small talk had been pleasant, but I had nothing in writing, just her surname, which I’d copied off her counter placard. “Barmwater,” or “yeast water,” indicated her father’s ancestors had been beer brewers, and I took that as a good sign because the local beer was one of my favorite parts of this foreign country that was steadily growing on me.

Shortly after my return from France, a couple of buddies and I decided to go the Schutzenfest, the annual county fair in Helmstedt. I didn’t know it at the time, but this fair was practically in Fräulein Barmwater’s backyard, for she lived just 50 meters away from the municipal fairgrounds. 

While my buddies and I were driving the bumper cars, I saw her standing alone laughing at the Americans who did not know that German bumper cars were to be driven in circles, not crashed into each other. My heart began thumping like Mother’s washing machine when the sheets were unbalanced. As soon as I could, I hopped from my car and approached the woman I’d seen in one form or another for the fourth time now and who’d been amused by what she’d seen, not angry like the bumper-car manager. 

When she recognized me as the “broken-hand man from the bank,” I introduced myself, asked about her vacation, and offered to buy her a bowl of ox-tail soup, the fair’s specialty. As she finished, I asked her if she’d like to go dancing sometime at the Club Autobahn, a popular dance hall/restaurant. She said yes, but it’s the Klabautermann, and we should meet at the distant corner she pointed to. Her father, who worked for the police, had warned her about “die Amis,” the Americans. I assured her I’d never been arrested, and we agreed to meet the following Saturday on the designated corner.

My first impression was that, unlike the other women I’d dated over the last three years, both foreign and domestic, Ingrid was as interested in me as I was in her. She was as curious about the US as I was about Germany. She asked, for example, about Al Capone and “all the cowboys,” which I found charming. And while I was asking about Hitler and the recent war, I realized that three months into our courtship, I was a “fugitive from the law of averages” as Bill Mauldin said; I should have been hitting around .200, and there I was at 1.000.

Skip & Ingrid, at the very beginning.
Skip & Ingrid, at the very beginning.

II “He was one of those fortunate men who, if they were to dive under one side of a barge stark naked, would come up on the other with a new suit of clothes on, and a ticket for soup in the waist-coat pocket.”Charles Dickens

Later in our courtship, Ingrid told me it was my “big cow eyes and the smell of diesel fuel” that captured her interest in a Private first class and set me apart from the others she’d dated including two handsome Germans and three American officers. One of these three had proposed marriage if she’d convert to Catholicism, which she politely declined. Another offered her a job in his mother’s California beauty salon, which she also declined. As for me, she was relieved to learn that, despite my tan, I was not a mulatto, as one of her girlfriends suspected, but I was three years younger than I’d told her. When she discovered my “defensive untruth,” she said it didn’t matter. If her figure had been a shade less shapely, her eyes a shade lighter blue, and her hair a shade lighter blond, I would not have been deterred.

Three months into our courtship, I was that British lady on the plane who after suffering a heart attack discovered there were 15 cardiologists on board headed to a convention in Florida. But long before my “streak of four at the plate” began, my father and I suffered some, let’s call it “bad luck,” though both of us bore most of the responsibility for the mishaps.

Cormac McCarthy has written that one cannot know what bad luck shields us from. The first instance of such luck was my father’s “F” in an engineering-design course which postponed his college graduation and his army commission for a year when the required course he’d failed was offered again. Graduating in 1939 instead of 1938 meant that Dad was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia, not the Philippines, where he surely would have been part of the Bataan Death March, like my friend and Clemson colleague Ben Skardon. Had that happened, I very likely would never have seen the beautiful light of day. (Dad was 6’ 1’; Ben was 5’8” and, according to Ben, the tall ones were the first to be bayonetted by the smaller Japanese.) Thanks to Dad’s “failure,” it was at an officers’ club dance in 1940 that Dad met the woman he would marry and who would become my mother five days after Pearl Harbor.

Eighteen years later, an “F” in freshman English at Georgia Tech altered my own life trajectory when, shell-shocked, I dropped out of school and enlisted in the US Army, which sent me to West Germany and the front of the Cold War. This destination, however, owed little to chance, for it was the one I had requested, remembering it fondly from when I’d lived there with Mother and Dad after World War Two. 

Today, I call my request to return to the Vaterland “the residue of design,” which many say is the basis of good luck. But when I hear people talk about marriages made in heaven, I like to remind myself that in 1963, when Ingrid and I married, there were some two billion women on the planet, and the Army had randomly assigned me a place just ten “clicks” from her home. What are the odds of that? I could just as easily have gone to Lubeck, a hundred miles north of Helmstedt, or Mt. Meisner, 50 miles south. 

Was someone or something pulling the strings above the curtain of the marionette theater? British scientist C. P. Snow said humans can’t win, we can’t break even, and we can’t leave the game. Those, he said, are the universal laws of thermodynamics but, as Ingrid and I have discovered, there are workarounds, because we have been together for over 60 years now and have no intention of leaving the “game” voluntarily.

The image Skip “happened upon,” and which sweetly sealed his fate.
The image Skip “happened upon,” and which sweetly sealed his fate.

III “Cherries abound at the end of the limb./Extend your hand or your haul will be slim.”—The Wordspinner

English has preserved in at least eight words immortalizing the old, suspected connection between luck and happiness. As Stephen Crane and his naturalist cohorts might have said, the pollen lands on the stigma where the wind happens to blow it. To the best of my knowledge, not a pollen grain has ever been “scripted” by the divine horticulturalist, but we do know that once evolution has stumbled on an improvement, the species retains and builds on it. From the Middle English happ meaning chance, luck, lot, or accident, English speakers have been gifted with the following:

  • The verb “to happen” means “to occur” or “to come to pass”; thus, what happens is what happens, often with no apparent reason—like the universe which, lucky for us, just happened.
  • The nouns “happening” and “happenstance” refer to chance occurrences, not necessarily serendipitous.
  • “Haphazard” is an adjective meaning “lacking order,” “random,” or “by chance.”
  • The noun “mishap” is an unfortunate happening.
  • The adjective “hapless” means “luckless” or “unfortunate.” (“Hapless” is my name for the luckless fellow at the bottom of Fortuna’s wheel.)
  • The adverb “perhaps” means “by” or “through chance,” “perchance,” “maybe,” or “possibly.”
  • The noun “happiness” is the condition of having more good luck than bad. The gambler who won 32 straight games at roulette did eventually guess the wrong color.
  • “Happy-go-lucky” is an adjective meaning “trusting in luck.” Think of Rip Van Winkle before he fell into that 20-year sleep.
Ingrid Barmwater’s German identity papers.
Ingrid Barmwater’s German identity papers.

IV “The blue bird of fortune/nests on the rim—/to reach her gold egg/one must trust to whim.”—The Wordspinner

Someone should tell the young men who sign to play professional baseball that, to paraphrase Henry Hill, the smaller the print in their contracts, the greater their chances of failure. Indeed, in the history of the professional game, 69 players have hit a home run on their first at bat, but 55 of them never hit another in their careers. From where I sit in the bleachers today, beginners’ luck often sucks. Yet, somehow, I started a “career” of six decades going, as I’ve said, four for four.

Despite Einstein’s conviction that God does not play dice with the universe, it turns out She does. Consider us mammals: had it not been for the bad luck of the dinosaurs, we’d still be living in muddy burrows like our cousins, the moles. A millimeter or nanosecond either way in the flight of the Chicxulub asteroid, and we, who suckle our young, might have perished without a trace. In 2009, Ms. Patricia DeMauro astonished onlookers when she had 154 winning rolls in a craps game. The probability of that streak is one in 1.56 trillion. Lucky as she was, she too succumbed to the reality principle on the 155th roll of her dice.

One study found that 50 percent of all patents worldwide are the result of serendipity, unexpected good luck, deserved or not. But Richard Wiseman, a psychologist who specializes in the study of chance, has calculated that only 10 percent of everything that happens to an individual is random; thus, the greater portion of what happens is defined by what we prepare ourselves for. At age 19, I can’t say I was fully prepared to court my future wife, but luck kept pushing me onto that stage without a script.

Everyman, it seems, stands at the intersection of Easy Street and Harm’s Way to borrow a scene from a Robert Mankoff cartoon. But sometimes, like Ms. DeMauro, we just get lucky. Luck, it seems, is amoral, random, and often inexplicable, but here’s something that you can deposit in the Cloud with confidence it won’t be hacked: if luck is the invisible hand of God, the results of Her manipulations are visible and palpable. The six-decade-long marriage of Ingrid and Skip is one such demonstrative result. Of course, good luck and bad are part of the game whether you believe in Her/Him/They or not. As many gamblers will tell you, it’s not winning or losing, it’s the action that makes it all so sweet—the opportunity to wake up and roll the dice one more time.

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

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